Following their inability to end in the top four, Goal consider what the future holds for the Nigeria duo
The disappointment on Wilfred Ndidi’s face after Leicester City’s 4-2 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur was unmistakable, with his body language equally expressing the general discontent.
Without a doubt, the knowledge that the Foxes had narrowly missed out on a Champions League spot on the final day for the second season running had to rankle.
It bore similarities to last season’s let-down, but this year’s failure was even more hurtful especially as Chelsea’s defeat by Aston Villa seemed to open the door for them to walk through.
Having been in the top four for 242 days in 2020/21, nearly 100 days longer than Manchester United (155) who finished second, the wound cuts deeper.
Champions Manchester City spent 130 in the CL spots, Liverpool for 139 and the Blues for 102; demonstrating how deserving Leicester were of a second crack at Europe’s prestigious club competition.
Unsurprisingly, observers have criticised the Foxes for lacking the bottle to see things through, but that is a harsh assessment and an oversimplification of the situation.
Brendan Rodgers’ team had to contend with a raft of injuries to key players, with Harvey Barnes, James Maddison and, recently, Jonny Evans missing important games in their run-in.
On the final day defeat by Tottenham, Wesley Fofana had to come off early with Ndidi dropping into central defence for the rest of the game, causing another rejig in a season that stretched and tested a side already running on empty.
Throw in Jamie Vardy’s steep decline since the turn of the year and there’s sympathy for the Foxes, who battled through regardless of their best player’s alarming drop-off.
Leicester’s lengthy stay in the top four owed a lot to the remarkable turnaround for Kelechi Iheanacho’s after Vardy’s goalscoring plummeted in the New Year.
The Nigeria forward’s performances seemed to give the Foxes that extra push for a while, but even the frequency of his goals reduced somewhat in the season’s closing weeks.
The former Man City striker netted nine times in seven games, before scoring just two times in the final five games. His 12 Premier League goals came from expected goals of 7.8, an overperformance that typifies Leicester’s campaign.
Rodgers’ team have punched above their weight in the last two seasons — and particularly this term — evidenced by their final tally and expected points, which reveals an interesting variance.
According to Understat, the Foxes outdid their final haul of 66 points by 6.25 points, outdone in the top six by only Man United who outperformed by 8.35 points.
While the manner of their eventual drop to fifth will obviously frustrate, they were always fighting a losing battle in the final weeks of the season. If anything, they did well to hold on for so long in the top four race, despite injuries to key players and Vardy’s decline in 2021.
Having said that, their inability to go over the line for two years running — thus missing out on the financial benefits of playing Champions League football — may lead to questions about some of their saleable assets, Ndidi inclusive.
The club revealed pre-tax losses of £67.3 million in their 2019/20 accounts and are likely to record another shortfall for the next financial year as well owing to the pandemic and absence of supporters for the majority of 20/21.
CL qualification alone would have promised €15.2 million this season with every group stage win guaranteeing €2.7m. However, Leicester had to make do with €2.92m for featuring in the Europa League while they earned €570,000 per win in the group stage.
In short: what the East Midlands team could have earned for winning a Champions League game nearly equals their guaranteed group stage allocation in the EL.
The income disparity further emphasises why ending in the top four this year was important and questions why many pundits and supporters opted for the FA Cup win (the Foxes earned £1.8m for beating Chelsea) over a spot in the CL if they had to choose only one.
While it was the club’s first success in the competition, their 2016 PL win greatly outshines victory in the domestic cup anyway. Thus, a top four spot will have been the greater achievement this year and strengthened the club’s long term ambition of consistently competing and outdoing the so-called top sides.
Finishing fifth this season could have ramifications for Ndidi, who may push for a move away from the King Power Stadium. However, this is unlikely due to the player’s affinity for the club and still having three years to run on his current contract.
Leicester have the leverage now — and will demand a high fee for the anchorman, who’s grown into one of the best in his position — but things could change in a year if they yet again fail to make the Champions League.
It’s a bit different for Iheanacho, who (unlike Ndidi) isn’t guaranteed a big transfer if he angles for a move away. Even though both players have three years left on their current contracts, the midfielder is seen as more valuable to the club and will be in higher demand if the Foxes are open to selling either.
Despite the extenuating factors contributing to Leicester’s successive fifth-place finish, a CL spot in 21/22 is imperative to retain a realistic chance of keeping the Nigerians on their roster, particularly Ndidi.
If they somehow hold on to both players this summer, next year would be of crucial importance for the ambitious Foxes. Top four or bust!